NFL

Top 10 storylines for NFL Divisional Playoffs

Vincent Frank
Written by Vincent Frank

Pretenders have been eliminated. Contenders remain. Eight teams battling for that one Lombardi Trophy. Here we are, the NFL Divisional Playoffs set to kickoff this weekend.

Who will show up on one of the game’s grandest of stages? Who will come up small? How will the youngsters perform in their first taste of postseason action? These are the stories behind the story heading into the second round of the playoffs. But there’s so much more to look at here.

Alex Smith has his Kansas City Chiefs thinking Super Bowl. Can he finally prove his worth as one of the game’s best quarterbacks against future Hall of Fame signal caller Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers?

Will Aaron Rodgers’ dominating run of terrific football be cut short by two rookies in the Big D?

And in New England, is there any way the underdog Houston Texans stay with Tom Brady and Co.?

These are among the top-10 storylines for the NFL Divisional Playoffs set to kickoff on Saturday. Enjoy. Have fun. Sit back and view the drama as it unfolds in front of us.

1. Alex Smith’s turn to prove his worth

For the first time since he was the San Francisco 49ers’ starting quarterback back in 2011, Smith heads into the playoffs with a first-round bye and home-field advantage. It’s an ideal scenario for the long underrated quarterback. It also comes against the Pittsburgh Steelers and future Hall of Fame signal caller Ben Roethlisberger.

None of this is new to Smith. Despite his excellence as a member of the Chiefs, Smith has always drawn the short end of the stick. He doesn’t put up Madden-like numbers. He’s not a fantasy relevant quarterback. He won’t throw for 400-plus yards. That much is already known.

Also known is the fact that Smith wins. And wins a lot.

We know what people think about quarterback wins. The most misleading of all stats in the NFL. That’s fine and dandy. But at the end of the day, isn’t that what matters the most? If your team is winning with you under center, you are surely doing something right.

Smith now has an opportunity to prove these naysayers wrong. If he were to outperform Big Ben with a trip to the AFC Championship game on the line, it would send a message to the football world. A message that tells us he’s arrived among the game’s best.

That his passing numbers or touchdown totals don’t matter. That he’s a pure representation of what it means to win at all cost. That’s a defining moment — one that could tell us the overriding story in the book that has been an up-and-down career for the former No. 1 overall pick.

2. Seahawks on the road

One of the ways to beat Pete Carroll’s Seattle Seahawks is to make sure you play them on your home turf. That’s been the overriding theme of his largely successful tenure in the Pacific Northwest. And it’s been magnified more in 2016 than ever before.

The regular season saw Seattle post a 3-4-1 record away from CenturyLink. That very same span of eight games allowed us to witness a quarterback in Russell Wilson that looked more vulnerable than at any other point in his career. The Super Bowl-winning signal caller put up eight touchdowns compared to eight interceptions and posted a mediocre 82.1 rating on the road.

All said, Seattle averaged just 15.9 points and put up six points or less three times on the road during the regular season.

This is where the Atlanta Falcons have to make sure home-field advantage actually matters in the divisional round. Interestingly enough, the Falcons boasted a worst record (5-3) at home than they did on the road (6-2). That’s the complete antithesis of what we’ve become accustomed to from Matt Ryan-led Falcons teams in the past.

Another point that must be made here. Wilson and the Seahawks have not fared relatively good on the road in weather-controlled (dome) environments. Wilson boasts a career 3-7 record in enclosed environments with four more interceptions than touchdowns during his career.

Home-field advantage is meant to give the team that puts up the best regular season the advantage over their opposition. The Falcons surely have that here. It’s now up to them to take advantage.

3. Playing the underdog card

Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien won’t admit that he’s playing this card. That’s a great stance to take publicly. Don’t let the opponent know you already understand what you’re up against. Don’t create media-based fodder. That’s all fine and dandy. But internally, you have to believe that the Texans are playing this card as they head to New England as two-touchdown plus dogs against the mighty Patriots.

No one is giving Houston a chance here. Brock Osweiler on the road against Tom Brady. Really? That seems to be akin to demanding the Cleveland Browns somehow morph into the 1972 Miami Dolphins. It isn’t going to happen.

But we already know the history of the NFL Playoffs. We know how underdogs have in the past steadied the ship and somehow come out on top. Just ask Eli Manning and the New York Giants in their two Super Bowl wins against these very same Patriots. That has to be what O’Brien is bringing home to his players as they enter the hostile conditions of Gillette Stadium this weekend.

Even in a more ridiculous show of disrespect, the Kansas City Chiefs, winners 10 of their past 12, enter this weekend’s game at Arrowhead as narrow underdogs to the Pittsburgh Steelers. How is Andy Reid treating that show of disrespect? Are the Chiefs ignoring it in pursuit of loftier goals? We will never really know, but we can bet passion will be on display for the boys in red when they host Steel City’s finest this weekend.

These are the backstories in two games that will determine the ultimate matchup in the AFC Championship game a week from Sunday. How the coaches for the two underdogs decide to utilize this will surely play a role in the outcome of this weekend’s games.

4. Aaron Rodgers’ dominating run

If there’s one person that could counteract what the Dallas Cowboys have done this season, it’s Aaron Rodgers. A player we now have to consider the MVP front runner. Remember when the Green Bay Packers stood at 4-6 and were in the midst of a four-game losing streak?

Their defense has just yielded a franchise record 153 points during that four-game span. Eddie Lacy was being shut down to injury. Jordy Nelson didn’t look to be 100 percent. Davante Adams and Randall Cobb were struggling picking their games up.

Despite all this, Rodgers outwardly mused that the Packers could win out. It was a daunting task. It took otherworldly performances. It took a Hail Mary or two (quite literally) and it took a lot of skill. But at the end of the day, the Packers would indeed win their next seven games to earn the NFC North title and a spot in the divisional round.

It’s a span of six regular season games that saw Rodgers throw 16 touchdowns compared to zero interceptions while compiling a 125-plus quarterback rating. Rodgers would then follow that up with a four-touchdown performance against the New York Giants in the Wild Card round.

Now heading into the divisional playoffs, this future Hall of Fame quarterback has tossed 24 touchdowns with zero picks (on 281 attempts) over his past eight games. He’s played elite-level football. He’s playing the best football of his career. Which, when looking at the grand scheme of things, means he’s playing the best football of any quarterback in the modern history of the NFL.

Much like winning out to end the regular season and taking out a red-hot Giants squad last week was a daunting task, going up against the NFC’s No. 1 seed this week will be a daunting task as well.

It’s not going to be about how well Rodgers plays. We know he’s going to have a good game. The only question here is whether he will put up an otherworldly performance that outpaces what we’re going to see from Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys.

This isn’t Rodgers taking on the Cowboys defense. This isn’t the two Cowboys rookies taking on the Packers defense. Both defenses are outmatched here. It’s about just how much better Rodgers will be than the Cowboys’ big two. If it’s a wide gap, Green Bay will come out on top and inch closer to the Super Bowl, further cementing Rodgers’ current run as one of the greatest in NFL history.

5. The Steelers’ big three

For the first time in their careers, Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown all suited up in a playoff game together. And it was a thing of beauty.

The Pittsburgh Steelers put up over 250 total yards and three touchdowns on their first three possessions. Brown dominated the early landscape of the game against the Miami Dolphins, scoring two first quarter touchdowns (watch here). On the ground, Bell added a Steelers playoff record 167 yards and two rushing scores. This all helped Pittsburgh overcome a pedestrian two-interception performance from Big Ben in a blowout 30-12 win over Miami.

Now with their playoff footing behind them, the Steelers’ big three take on a much more difficult opponent in the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday afternoon.

Kansas City has lost a grand total of two games since its 29-point blowout defeat against these Steelers back in Week 4. This very same span of action has seen the Chiefs force a grand total of 23 turnovers. That right there is a ball-hawking defense the Steelers are poised to go up against on Sunday.

Whether it’s the tremendous matchup that has Antonio Brown going up against Marcus Peters or Pittsburgh’s dominating offensive line taking on an impressive Chiefs pass rush, these are the backstories that will dictate the outcome of what promises to be a close game.

But based on what we saw from Pittsburgh’s big three in the postseason debut last week, fans of the Terrible Towel have to be feeling confident about their team’s chances. When at the top of their game, there’s no more dangerous offense in the NFL. Yes, that includes both the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons.

6. The road through New England

All six of the Patriots’ Super Bowl appearances under Tom Brady have started with the team earning a first-round bye in the playoffs and winning their first game at home in the postseason that year. Simply put, since the start of this amazing run the road to the AFC title has almost literally gone through Gillette Stadium.

It’s not a coincidence that Brady himself has been downright dominant at home in the divisional round. He’s 11-2 and has thrown 28 touchdowns compared to seven interceptions in 13 such games during his career.

There’s a ton of reasons for this. Obviously, the Patriots’ utter dominance during this run plays a huge role. But equally as important, the ability of a rested New England squad to take on a lesser opponent at home surely has played a role here.

Whether Houston can overcome the seemingly insurmountable evidence pointing to a landslide Patriots win remains to be seen. If history is any indicator, good luck with that. Not only has New England been dominant at home in the divisional round, it defeated Houston at home back in Week 3 with Jacoby Brissett starting.

7. Memories of past playoff failures

We look primarily at Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons here. It’s an unfortunate storyline heading into the divisional round. One that the Falcons would rather put past themselves following what was a tremendous regular season.

From his turnover-prone outing against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game back in 2013 dating back to Ryan’s first playoff start in 2008, it’s been blunder on top of blunder for the Falcons under his watch.

All said, Ryan boasts a 1-4 record with nine touchdowns and nine turnovers in five career postseason starts. He’s lost heart-breakers (see aforementioned Cardinals game in 2008). He’s lost blowouts. And he’s lost other games that were seemingly ripe for taking. The one common theme here has been an inability of Ryan to lead his Falcons to the next level in the playoffs.

But as we point to past postseason failures, we must also acknowledge that this isn’t the same Matt Ryan. He’s playing the best football of any quarterback in the NFL. He’s a legit MVP candidate. This also isn’t the same Falcons teams that were flawed in so many ways in the past. It’s a well-rounded unit with a solid running game and one of the most-consistent pass rushers in the NFL.

In reality, this is what places Ryan under the microscope. Should he falter again here, this time at home in a winnable game against Seattle, the narrative will be spelled out right in front of us. It’s a narrative that concludes Ryan is nothing more than a regular season quarterback that fails to make the big play when it counts in January.

It’s a reputation that’s followed him throughout his career. This is Ryan’s best chance to throw that narrative and that criticism. Completely out the window.

To go full circle here for a second, it also comes against a Seahawks team that he defeated for his only postseason victory under similar circumstances back in 2013. It came with Seattle having to win at home before taking on the rested Falcons at the Georgia Dome in the divisional playoffs the following week. The end result was a three-touchdown performance from Ryan en route to a 30-28 win. Maybe history repeats itself in a good way here.

8. Assistants in the limelight

Whether it’s New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels or up-and-coming Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard, there are a nice amount of assistants with a lot on the line here. Such is the nature of the beast when you have Super Bowl contenders matching wits at the same time as there are head-coaching vacancies around the NFL.

We’re not going to sit here and say that this weekend’s action will dictate whether these assistants get jobs. That would be akin to watching one game of college tape on a prospect and then determining where he should get drafted. But recency bias sure is a thing in today’s NFL, especially with so many qualified candidates.

Looking specifically at New England and Seattle, here are two teams taking on the best that the NFL has to offer. McDaniel’s leads his Pats offense against a No. 1-ranked Houston Texans defense. If Tom Brady and Co. put up the expected strong performance here, it could add further legitimacy to the idea that the brass in San Francisco is leaning in the direction of hiring McDaniels for his second head-coaching stint.

In Atlanta, Richard leads his Seahawks defense against the Falcons No. 1 scoring offense. It’s a game that pits Richard Sherman up against Julio Jones. It also enabled Richard to flex his scheme in the face of a two-headed running back monster in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. With other teams likely paying attention, one has to wonder just how this game might play a role in their final determination.

It doesn’t stop here either. As new coaching staffs are filled up around the NFL, position coaches will get looks as coordinators. Promotions are to be had. That’s the backstory during a weekend of action hat will bring the NFL to its final four. It might not be a sexy story, but it surely is something to watch.

9. A hopeful NFL looks for more drama

As much as the NFL might have wanted drama-filled action during Wild Card weekend, we saw what ended up being a boring slate of four games. All said, last week’s action was about as bland as it gets. The four games were decided by a combined 76 points with each game being decided by double-digits.

Don’t expect the same thing to occur during the divisional round. With the exception of New England being favored by more than two touchdowns against Houston, the point spread for each game is five points or less. You know the saying: If Vegas is on to something, we might as well follow suit.

We have to expect some pretty big drama to unfold, especially in the two NFC Playoff games. With Aaron Rodgers potentially playing at the highest level of his career, the Packers are not going to sit down against the No. 1 seed Dallas Cowboys.

Then again, there can’t be a single expert out there who believes the Pack’s lackluster defense will be able to shut down Dallas’ young guns on offense. Look for a high-scoring affair here, one that will likely be decided in the final minutes.

On a different note, Atlanta takes its No. 1 scoring offense and puts it to the test against Seattle’s No. 3 scoring defense. Even if Seattle is unable to shut down Matt Ryan and Co. here, it’s facing a Falcons defense that yielded the sixth-most points during the regular season. No one should expect a blowout in this one.

Now that the pretenders and injury-plagued teams have been eliminated, it’s time for the real Super Bowl contenders to square off. With that promises to bring the late-game drama that was missing during Wild Card weekend.

10. Cowboys’ “rookies” in the spotlight

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said it best when he refused to call Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott rookies. They have each now played a full regular season of football. They have done so with the spotlight firmly on them as the face of the most-surprising team in football. They have done so while putting up unparalleled success for first-year players.

There shouldn’t be much concern among Cowboys faithful that these two will somehow come up small when it counts the most Sunday against Green Bay. Though, they are still rookies. They are also taking on a seasoned Packers squad that’s in the midst of a seven-game winning streak.

But what Prescott and Elliott have done thus far this season cannot be denied.

Prescott heads into the playoffs having accounted for 29 total touchdowns compared to four interceptions. Meanwhile, Elliott finished a handful of yards shy of 2,000 after sitting out the team’s season finale. In the end, the two helped lead a Cowboys offense that ranked in the top five in total yards and points scored. That’s an amazing feat in and of itself.

In order for the Cowboys to come out on top here, they are going to have to rely on this historical duo, one that already has etched its name into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Anything short of that would be a ridiculous game plan.

It’s now up to Jason Garrett to continue letting them ball out on the field. If that were to happen, there’s no reason to believe this year’s version the Cowboys can’t hoist the Lombardi when all is said and done. It’s time to stop questioning Prescott and Elliott. Instead, let’s just sit back and enjoy this once-in-a-generation show.

About the author

Vincent Frank

Vincent Frank

Editor-at-large, Sportsnaut.

“You were born with wings, why prefer to crawl through life?” Rumi